The Bridge to Somewhere

Every story has “acts” to it. I’m not talking about the actions of a character specifically, but the stages of a play transpiring before an audience. Broadly speaking, classical stories have three acts to them in which the plot begins and ends. The first act is all about starting off the story and introducing characters to the viewership. Conversely, the third act focuses on concluding the story, typically with some sort of climactic crescendo. Pretty straightforward, right? So, what is the second act? While I could give you a hundred different answers, I will simply define the second act as a bridge between the start and finish.

While labeling something is easy, executing it is another matter entirely. The fact is that just about any halfway decent writer can kick off a story. Character introductions? Inciting events? Boom! Likewise, ending a story is pretty easy: “Chad lived happily ever after.” (There is an art to endings, but that is a different blog post.) Building the bridge between the two is where the elite writers stand apart from the average masses. Every story has to have a different kind of bridge, depending upon its starting and ending points. While fiction has nailed the first and third acts into a form of science (see every single Marvel movie), there is no blueprint upon which to base an original story’s second act.

There are, however, common themes that run through most second acts. Typically, these constitute themes of remembrance, relationships, and reconciliation. All three of these attributes should wind together into a singular thread, like in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Luke exits the first act on snowy Hoth but doesn’t reach the climax in Cloud City immediately. Instead, he journeys to the dank swamp of Dagobah in search of truths. There he finds the little green alien that aids him in the classic hero’s journey, where he learns all manner of things and departs with newfound strength. This is an ideal second act, if imperfect in some ways.

Honestly, the best second acts are the ones that provide such a smooth passageway between the start and finish that the viewership doesn’t even realize that they are traversing a bridge. Mad Max: Fury Road is a great example of this, sneaking the second act into one long explosive post-apocalyptic road trip that barely ever slows down. Lesser stories would have settled for Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy (the titular Max) stopping at a gas station for a long while and providing the audience with a great moment to run to the bathroom. Instead, the story has a nighttime shootout in the midst of scenic exposition relevant to the main story. No sagely advice required from a little green man.

So how does a writer go about crafting a deeply unique and highly customized second act? First of all, they need to figure out the first and third acts. It’s very hard to build a bridge in the middle of the ocean with no landmasses to attach it to. Only until the shorelines are properly determined can the foundation be laid. Granted, some adjustments must occur down the road, but they will be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps the best example of this is Avatar: The Last Airbender. The creators of the show were not entirely sure of everything in the middle, but they had a clear start (the hero leaves the iceberg) and a definite conclusion planned (the hero ends the eternal war).

Next, every writer needs to determine the length of the bridge. While the second act of a movie might just be an hour in length, another fictional medium could have a much longer act. If someone is writing a seven book series, then several books could comprise what stage play would call act II. Sometimes a shorter span is in order, especially if lengthening the bridge would only drag out the narrative in a painful fashion. (Remember, the goal is to get from point A to B in the most logical and thoughtful way possible.) Finally, all of the characters need to traverse the bridge as smoothly as the viewership. Abrupt transitions never go well for anyone, fictional or nonfictional.

Can you think of a story that does the second act particularly well? Let me know in the comments!

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Welcome to My War

War means a lot of things to a lot of different people, especially those who actually played some part in it. One of my favorite sub-genres is the “homecoming hero” story that tries to paint a window into a soul that has seen the effects of war. There are a surprising number of examples of this, perhaps primarily because of the United States almost perpetually being at war for the past eight decades. No writer should deceive themselves, this is perhaps the toughest story anyone can write, even if they are basing it on historical facts. Let’s dive into this type of story and figure out what makes it tick.

Firstly, there has to be authenticity even if the story is not really that authentic. This is not a whimsical lighthearted subject that a casual writer can tackle. Realism is of paramount importance, primarily the emotional variety. A great deal of research is in order, as is nuanced thought into the basic components of the story. A war veteran is probably not going to become a standup comedian when they get home. Likewise, no one is going to suddenly forget about all of their problems for the convenience of a plot point or other inciting event. If the story is based on real-life events then it must have real-life inputs via true stories.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a fictional 1947 film following three US servicemen coming home from World War II. All three of the men are exiting out very different war situations and into three distinct home fronts that overlap in fascinating ways. One of the characters was played by Harold Russell, a real-life serviceman who lost both of his hands in World War II. His story inside the movie, in particular, is powerfully compelling. Both of the other lead characters also have their hurdles, both romantically and socially. The movie was a box office hit and went on to virtually sweep the Academy Awards for that year, hailed as one of the great stories of that era.

But just because this topic is serious and grounded doesn’t mean it can’t be translated into pure fantasy. The novel and television show Violet Evergarden is set in a fictional world recovering from a ravaging war. In it, the titular character Violet starts out in a hospital recovering from near mortal injuries while her fellow servicemembers deport to celebrating crowds. Now equipped with two prosthetic arms that draw gasps whenever she removes her gloves, Violet enters into a new postal company founded by a former superior officer. From there the story jumps back and forth between her harrowing near-childhood in war and her current attempts to reestablish her humanity.

Many stories tackle the veteran background as a backdrop to explain the protagonist or another major character. If life is defined by traumatic events, then a wartime active duty soldier will be defined by their career. Every writer needs to be especially careful in this situation, specifically in their avoidance of creating an archetypal “damaged” hero who mutters “War is hell” repeatedly. Not all veterans are the same because people are not the same. Some people are much better at attempting to deal with their deepest problems, while others try to run and hide from them (even if they have a heroic spirit). Not surprisingly, postwar environmental dynamics have a huge impact on them.

Perhaps my favorite take on the tortured veteran is the latest iteration of the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. In this story, Frank Castle fails epically to readjust to civilian life, both because of his enemies and his own demons. Roaming the streets looking for those who murdered his family immediately after his return from Afghanistan, Frank struggles to pull meaning from his shattered life. Alongside him, other friends and veterans take more peaceable and therapeutic attempts to recover from events they can barely describe. Frank holds out as long as possible to his comrades’ invitations, only to accept it when he realizes just how afraid he really is of himself and his capabilities.

Is there story you think tackles this tricky subject of homecoming with aplomb? Let me know in the comments!

Dancing Past the Grave Yard

Serious drama can be seriously annoying. All the characters can be stiff, their dialogue can be stale, and everything else tends to go along with the rigor mortis. Viewers are likely to peel themselves off of the stoic material, muttering to themselves about the lack of levity. What’s missing is simple: comedy! But wait a minute, isn’t that the other major genre? Yes, but no one said the two can’t mix every now and then. It’s crazy how someone a long time ago mandated that drama and comedy be binary. Real life tends to be equal parts of both, so any fictional story should probably do the same.

I think I should probably take a moment to parse out synonyms. While comedy and humor are used interchangeably, the two words are very different in origin. “Humor” is an archaic middle-ages term used to crudely diagnose a person’s dispositions via the assessment of bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, etc.). “Comedy” on the other hand goes back to ancient times and describes a specific genre of lighthearted dramatic play with clear parameters. For sake of this blog, I will define “humorous” as an act of emotional lightheartedness. Proper humor allows for comedy (or its elements) to work successfully.

Perhaps the best hybrid example of a modern work capturing both drama and comedy is the TV show Archer. This show appears to be merely an episodic comedy featuring an oddball cast of spies performing ridiculously dangerous acts, yet the narrative slowly builds upon itself in a serialized dramatic fashion. It’s characters (including the titular Sterling Archer) are always being absurd, yet they have a dramatic core to them that makes them humorous humans. Archer himself learns and grows as a character, something you don’t see in a 1960s episodic sitcom.

Another great example would be the proto-Archer: Arrested Development. This TV show laid an obscure “dramady” foundation on network television, only becoming a cult classic much later. The Bluth family and the show had a serious collective journey over multiple seasons, successfully capturing a decaying family in a humorous fashion. Only a casual observer would label such a work of art as a mere comedy with a happy ending (which always seemed to allude the cast of characters). Instead, the show felt like a mildly exaggerated take on real life with its ups and downs.

The Witcher series presents a dark and gritty world filled full of drama, just like 1 million other fantasy series. What sets it apart is the superb writing, specifically in its humorous parts. There are hilarious sections in each novel, with many events laced with irony and conflicting narration. The protagonist Geralt is locked in a mortal struggle with the forces of destiny, which are also sometimes conspiring to just embarrass him and his friends. In many ways, it is a classic tragedy immersed in strong comedic elements. While other stories decide to scowl and mutter at the graveyard, the Witcher cheerfully dances by.

Every writer needs to hone their skill in humor, even if they don’t ever plan on writing a comedy. Quite simply, humor makes characters relatable in ways that other details could never hope to achieve. In real life, a person’s greatest bonding moments happen sparely in tragedy (I hope), but frequently in comedy. Making a viewer bond with a character in a funny moment can turn a tidy profit. While it might be colossally reductionistic, I would propose that Marvel movies have thoroughly defeated DC films primarily because of the latter’s lack of humor. The space god Thor is more human than the scowling Ben Affleck Batman simply due to the abundance of chuckles.

I would challenge every writer to thoroughly review their work and ask themselves if it is funny enough. If it isn’t, they should probably drill down deep into the message of their story and try to find some mirth. Everyone needs to start somewhere when developing their funnybone and prose is a great place to begin. Don’t be afraid to analyze the funniest writers and copy their basic narrative traits in the quest for better entertainment.

Do you know of a story that isn’t an outright comedy, but is very funny? Let me know in the comments!

Wide is the Road to Destruction

This might come as a surprise to you, but you’ve got some serious flaws you might want to check out in the near future. But don’t worry, they’re really hard to see from your perspective. Better yet, you might not even see them as flaws! On the upside, everyone else’s flaws are readily evident and can be easily diagnosed. The next time you get mad at someone you know the two of you can have a heated discussion about who has more flaws. I’m sure once this super polite conversation comes to an explosive-free close both you and your buddy can walk away as better people convicted in a quest to self-improve. That’s all how it works, right? (Sarcasm now off.)

While this could be a discussion about a writer’s perils and the need for reviewers and editors, I would prefer to take this and tackle a more subtle subject: the “perfect” character mistake. Believe it or not, all fictional characters are in artificial worlds and scenarios. Perhaps these characters are based on a real-life figure, nevertheless, they are still fake. As a result, the inclination is for a writer to create perfect characters. These protagonists and antagonists almost always tend toward being the embodiment of good or evil with well-defined personalities and inclinations. They are “perfect” in their typecast. Unfortunately, real people tend to be anything but.

Compounding this problem is the viewer being limited to a certain point of view created by the author. Essentially the viewer is tied to a chair and forced to watch potentially stilted characters behave in artificial “perfect” ways. So how can a writer navigate this issue? Firstly, any writer worth their salt can capitalize on points of view to ensure that their characters are less-than-perfect (even if the fictional character might not realize it). The Game of Thrones novels do a tremendous job of this, capturing a character’s viewpoint with all their flaws. George R.R. Martin goes so far as to subtly depict blind spots by having characters witness key information and fail to draw conclusions clear to the reader.

The video game Spec Ops: The Line was never a smashing commercial success, but it did have a profound impact on storytelling in the industry. In most video games, the player controls an avatar in a very straightforward and self-assured manner, typically a classic hero who can do no wrong (more or less). Spec Ops subversively captures the same inclinations in its storytelling, presenting a fresh take on the classic novel Heart of Darkness. In the game, the player controls a military soldier who enters into a no man’s land to capture a rogue commander who appears to have gone mad.

Throughout the entire game, the protagonist is faced with more and more horrible events and perceived choices, but still feels vindicated in their actions due to the villainy of the antagonist. Needless to say, the endgame presents horrific truths that challenge both the avatar protagonist and the player with the controller. A shocking conclusion spins off into multiple endings, all exposing the flawed protagonist for what he really is. Naturally, the shock is amplified by both the protagonist and the player glossing over key details scattered throughout the game, all hinting at less than clear truths.

My advice to writers is to remember that Jesus said: “Wide is the road to destruction and narrow is the path to salvation.” Fictional people should be naturally blind and accidentally destructive, not idealistic avatars for the writer. All characters should have inclinations toward selfishness and shortsightedness. Nonetheless, these fictitious persons should surprise the readers in positive ways, displaying goodness and selflessness along with their tendency to avoid self-reflection. Most importantly, have the blind be surprisingly perceptive along the lines of their personality, each character capable of assessing others with great acumen.

Do you know of a story that captures human nature well, especially the blindness that accompanies it? Let me know in the comments!

Death of a Loved One

Funerals are painful, but they have nothing on death. Whether slow and dreadful, or fast and fierce, death shakes us collectively back to reality. In the case of fiction, however, it should shake the viewer back into fantasy. Stories need to have death in them, or at least the recognition of passing to somewhere beyond. To ignore death is to ignore certain fate, the ephemeral beauty of life, and the dance between the two. Fiction that refuses to tackle reality ceases to become meaningful and ventures into the superfluous.

Tactfulness is naturally required, especially if the story targets children or a combination of ages. Death needn’t be a bloodbath or a tasteless morbid pleasure. Any writer worth their salt has to determine the appropriate communication tone. Likewise, any sensitive viewership invested in fictional characters will also have to be navigated with assuredness. No one likes it when their favorite character dies, especially if that death feels less than satisfying or soothing. So how does a writer go about clearing all these hurdles with grace? I can only point to the classics and extrapolate from there.

Perhaps the “granddaddy” of death is Walter White in Breaking Bad. The first episode of this five-season television work of art makes it clear that Walter is going to die at some point in the near future, even if he can somehow beat his lung cancer back into submission. Over this whole series, we see this mad scientist battle with the Grim Reaper in a bitter life or death struggle. Ironically, many of the other major characters in the show with stronger constitutions die horrible deaths, each timely and situationally sensical. Nonetheless, the viewership feels glee or pain with every one of them.

Battlestar Galactica is another show that features a primary character battling cancer over the course of the story. President Laura Roslin assumes her seat of power immediately after learning she has terminal cancer. Her journey is one of many in the show that leads to death, each one impactful and jarring in distinctive ways. Never does the show settle for making boring sacrifices or riskless confrontations in every riveting season of the show. People die and they expire hard in the cold of space with a diminishing census of humanity at the start of every episode.

As any writer can surmise from both of these excellent fictional works, deaths must fit into the plot like any other procedural element. Obligatory heroic sacrifices, whimsical shock tragedy, and any other fictionally unnatural events should never transpire. In the same vein, no character should wear plot armor just because they are popular with the viewership or are simply a good hero. Having invincible characters who run through horrifying situations but always come out intact kills drama in the most basic way possible. The Legend of Korra is particularly guilty of this, as its heroes are essentially immortal (unlike the villains).

Perhaps the greatest error a writer can make is the retraction of death, followed closely by the faking of it. When a writer starts resurrecting characters or always having them tragically disappear and then magically return it undermines their credibility with their viewership. (Lord of the Rings fans may dispute this argument with Gandalf, but I disagree.) At this point, the fictional work becomes an extremely flimsy artifice that is borderline absurd to everyone but the most diehard of a fan. To put it another way, consequences should be consequential. Once death is converted into a quivering jump rope things get rather confusing for the rules of the world.

Is there a story that you think handles death especially well? Let me know in the comments!

What the People Want

Every fictional writer has a lot of aspirations, either personal or objective (maybe both). This can range from notable achievement to something far more abstract. Perhaps the author is trying to express a viewpoint, or challenge the reader in unexpected ways. Whatever the reasons, such aspirations drive a writer to produce something beautiful. Ultimately, however, nobody cares about all of that junk. When someone goes to buy a fictional book or see a fictional movie they want to be entertained. Period. Full stop. The customer is king and the customer needs to get what they want! So how can a writer capitalize on this desire?

This may come as a shock, but fiction is the opposite of nonfiction. Nonfiction focuses on realistic historical documentation and the communication thereof, while fiction is all about putting as many cool things into a story as possible. Realism and historical accuracy are only as necessary as the plot demands it to maintain suspension of disbelief. Broadly speaking, I would say fiction needs the following three things: emotion, explosions (the metaphorical type), and expectations. Viewers need to be on a crazy thrill ride that they feel a part of and want to continue. Needless to say, deep commentary and motifs are simply icing to the audience.

Perhaps the greatest offender in fictional storytelling is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, Rand attempts to sell her objectivist ideology to the fictional consumer in the most unwieldy of fashions. A famous character by the name John Galt goes on an infamous monologue for a nauseatingly long time, acting as a mouthpiece for the author. Every writer wants a page-turner, but I found myself turning more than one page at a time in a quest to get past the unending speech. Conversely, the video game Bioshock is the epitome of excellent storytelling that also happens to be a formal rebuttal to Rand’s objectivist ideology. Never once does the game stoop to simply analyzing and rejecting a worldview, instead choosing situational subtlety.

The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino does a great job of giving the audience what they want in a beautiful Western package. It features eight hateful people who end up shooting at each other in a very Tarantino-like fashion, with loads of great monologues and acting along the way. This movie never pretends to be something it is not, instead opting for a riveting mysterious journey in a tight 1860s cabin. Best of all, it sprinkles the fun throughout the movie, keeping audiences delighted at every twist. Never once does it make a grand, preachy speech about some existential fact of humanity in a ham-fisted way, instead opting for personal moments in subtle ways (at least by Tarantino standards).

Expectations are perhaps the most important attribute of giving people what they want. If you put two cute characters together and have them flirt, then the audience is going to expect them to fall into some sort of loving relationship. On the opposite end, if two gunslingers swear to kill each other than the viewership will expect some shooting sometime in the future. While a writer doesn’t have to produce exactly what they are telegraphing, they must at least acknowledge what their fans want and give them a “twisted” version of it. To cite another Kurt Russell movie, Executive Decision features Russell and Steven Seagal going to kick terrorist butt on an airplane. A colossal plot twist happens near the start of the movie, but audiences still got their money’s worth in the kicking of terrorist butt.

Every writer has their own challenges to tackle in this department, primarily because of their own distinctive strokes. In light of this, I would encourage everyone to focus on the core fundamentals of creative writing: plot, characters, dynamics, etc. Just because you thought up a great radical concept for a novel doesn’t mean that the story can’t be fun. Remember, fun is the ultimate litmus test! If your viewers aren’t having fun, then what you’re writing simply is not working. Of paramount importance is the avoidance of preachiness. Pontificate on any subject for too long and you run the danger of breaking the fourth wall right into the viewer’s living room. Worse yet, your protagonist has an ideology that just happens to align with yours and is always right. Never do that!

Is there a story that is a dump truck load full of fun and gives the viewership what they want? Let me know in the comments!

A Few of My Favorite Things

Today we’re going to take a break from fiction analysis and spend some time dancing in a flowering valley amongst the Alps. I’m going to quit beating around the bush and list some of my favorite fictional works in every type of medium. More specifically, I’m going to focus on the best writing in fiction. If you are an aspiring fictional writer, I will strongly encourage you to experience these works of art. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a musical!

Now it’s time for the disclaimers. First and foremost, I can never experience every fictional intellectual property in the universe. All that I’m about to list is based on my own experiences, which are very limited. As a person, I am very biased toward certain genres and types of storytelling, so I’m aware that my views are not “better” than anyone else’s views. Please don’t take offense if your favorite work of writing is not on this list.

Secondly, I am focusing only on evaluating and praising the writing components of fiction. While writing typically is the only important aspect of novels, television/movies and video games are very different. Phenomenal cinematography, acting, costumes, and visual effects can all make a movie (or television show) great even if the writing is bland. On the most extreme end, video games don’t even need a coherent plot to be great. Some of the greatest games of all time are regularly ridiculed for having silly plots written by computer programmers with no prior works to their name.

Lastly, I am choosing the following works of fiction based on a few sets of criteria: consistency, pacing, plot, characters, and dynamics. To me, great writing has to have all of these attributes. Something has to be consistent in its storytelling, well-paced in its narrative, and featuring a dynamic plot with dynamic characters. I’m not going to call anything “great” if it is only great half the time for has clear and well-documented flaws in the narrative. Unfortunately, I feel like this disqualifies almost all comedies, which tend toward being very uneven works (even if they are very amusing).

Without further ado, the best writing in movies (in no particular order):

Batman Begins – David S. Goyer: The superhero movie that served as a blueprint for an entire genre. A must watch for any writer venturing into the superhero arena.

The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino: A Western thriller that is three hours long, but feels like 90 minutes. This is how you do dramatic tension.

Inception – Christopher Nolan: The ultimate thinking man’s action movie. Features a complex and multifaceted plot that doesn’t fall apart by the end of the story.

The best writing in television (in no particular order):

The Wire – David Simon (lead): Considered by many critics to be the greatest television show ever created (at least until Breaking Bad came along).

Breaking Bad – Vince Gilligan (lead): Arguably the best television show ever created, especially when considering the improvised script on display.

Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Souls – Shizuka Oishi: Epic fantasy, nuanced romance, grey villains, and perfect pacing make this show second to none in this genre.

The best writing in novels (in no particular order):

The Witcher Series – Andrzej Sapkowski: Features the best world building I have ever seen in a fantasy world. Has almost perfect prose in an overwrought genre.

Warhammer 40K – Multiple Authors: Star Wars or Star Trek? I choose neither! Warhammer tackles sci-fi with aplomb and a whole host of writers.

The Gentlemen Bastards Series – Scott Lynch: The best characters you can possibly have in a series. Every dialogue crackles with lightning.

The best writing in video games (in no particular order):

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Multiple Authors: This game has a better story than most novels, something that cannot be said for almost any other video game.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – Chris Avellone (lead): A story that turned the Star Wars saga upside down with its complicated characters and breathtaking poise.

Spec Ops: The Line – Walt Williams (lead): An action game that makes you think about every action, primarily due to the amazing world and the events that you help transpire.

In the coming weeks, I will be singling out some of these stories to examine. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments!